Let more foreign students in

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

ASPEN, COLO. – The Aspen Ideas Festival assigned a panel of high-powered experts to contemplate the challenges of globalization. Each listed their most important concerns. None mentioned the word terrorism.

As the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, no American has forgotten the trauma and tragedy of that day. President Bush insists that defending the homeland is still the overriding mission of his presidency, and his single-mindedness is understandable.

But as those experts here in Aspen reflect, memories are fading and priorities are shifting. Preventing another terrorist attack remains a critical national focus, but it’s not the only one. America faces many other threats from abroad, and the panelists highlighted one of them: foreign countries are stealing some of the world’s best students, scholars, scientists and innovators away from the United States.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, one of the panelists, told us: “You don’t have to come here anymore. We are in a marketplace, and if we don’t provide the services, they’ll go elsewhere.” Added James Steinberg, dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs: “We are getting badly hurt, we are losing a lot of talented people.”

At least one of the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the United States on a student visa, and the president reflected a bipartisan consensus when he reacted to that attack by imposing tough new limits on foreign degree-seekers. “The country must stay on alert,” Bush explained at the time, “our enemies still hate us.”

But now, says Powell, it’s time to “change the rheostat,” to recalibrate the costs and benefits of that policy, to “take more risks” and accept more talented foreigners. The national interest, America’s competitive standing in the world, demands it.

While the administration has made some positive moves – applications from Pakistani students are up 20 percent this year – the toll on American universities is still devastating. “I could give you horror stories,” said Powell, and offered one example.

A young woman from a royal family in Asia arrived in America for college. Her visa said she could only enter 30 days before classes started and she was five days early. She was arrested, placed in ankles shackles and thrown in prison. No wonder, noted Powell, “we lost her, she went to Australia.”

Other countries see an opening and are moving into it. The European Commission has started a major campaign, called Erasmus Mundus, to recruit foreign students. Australia is doing the same thing. Their lure: lower costs, less red tape and in some cases, the promise of citizenship after graduation.

Says Steinberg: “If a student is choosing between the very best university, in America, and a very good one, in Australia, the difference is not enough to justify the hassle of getting a visa to come here.”

While science and engineering students are the prize catches, other disciplines, like business, are in the recruiting game as well. An Indian Web site, called TopMBA.com, reports: “The difficult environment of the past few years (in the United States) has pushed many potential MBAs toward study in Europe. And, as these students graduate and spread the word about European programmes within India, the trend looks set to continue.”

Why does this trend matter? Money, for one thing. Foreign students often pay full tuition, helping to subsidize financial aid for poor Americans. But the intangible benefits are far greater.

Young foreigners who study in America are this country’s best ambassadors. All the millions spent by the State Department on TV stations and PR blitzes to improve America’s image around the world cannot begin to generate the goodwill fostered by a few years in Ann Arbor or Austin.

If these students return home, they take with them strong sympathies for American culture and strong ties to American academics and entrepreneurs. If they stay, their energy and ideas invigorate the American economy. The value of retaining these grads is so great, says Sen. Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, that a “green card (allowing permanent residency) should be stapled to every diploma” received here by a foreign student.

Then there’s the impact that foreign students have on their classmates. In Steve’s writing class last spring at George Washington University, a young Syrian woman described the loss of her family’s land in the Golan Heights, now occupied by Israel. In that moment, her American friends saw the Middle East conflict from an entirely different perspective.

So Colin Powell is right. It’s time to change the nation’s policy toward foreign students. Take more risks and let more in.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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